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2012 Ford Focus Electric: The strong, silent type (first drive)

Ford takes a shot over the bow of the Nissan Leaf, and CNET Car Tech takes a Focus with no tailpipe for a spin.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Last week, I rather flippantly mentioned that I'd driven Ford's new Focus Electric, but that I couldn't talk about it. I know you've been on the edge of your seat since then, so I won't bury the lead any further and just get right into what you're here for: the drive.

On the road, the Focus Electric rides nearly identically to the gasoline-powered Focus. That is, until you listen and realize that there is no exhaust note and no engine noise, only the gentle "whoosh" of the road beneath the tires and the tiny, high-pitched hum of the electric motor. Unlike a hybrid, there's no gasoline engine that fires up when you get too heavy on the accelerator, so there's no audible feedback to deter you from your lead-footed antics, there's only silent and strong electric torque egging you on and prodding you forward. And just because there are no tailpipe emissions doesn't mean that there are no consequences to driving inefficiently. Rather than hurting the environment or your wallet at the pump, driving the Focus Electric like a tool hurts your range, a resource that is in quite limited supply on a vehicle that only starts with an EPA estimated 76 miles per charge.

By the time my trip in the Focus Electric was over, all three bars were maxed and the range had actually increased. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Fortunately, Ford gives drivers a number of tools integrated into the MyFord Touch instrument cluster's twin color LCD screens to help maximize range and driving efficiency. For starters, there's the regenerative braking system. Whenever you bring the vehicle to a complete stop, the left-hand display shows a small pie chart that illustrates the percentage of energy recaptured by the regenerative braking system on a 0-to-100-percent scale. Additionally, there are user selectable meters for that left-hand screen that measure and report back on how efficiently you're accelerating, braking, and cruising; display historical driving efficiency; and measure your current range and compare it with the distance to your next destination. Range is estimated based on your individual historical driving style, so after a few days with the Focus Electric, you may find the computer's guesses getting more and more accurate. Perhaps, I've got a particularly eco-friendly right foot because I noticed that the estimated range was actually slightly higher after my drive than it was before I got in.

Now playing: Watch this: Take a ride in the 2012 Ford Focus Electric

On the other extreme of the MyFord Touch instrument cluster (that is, the right-hand side), there's a second display that can be used to display everything from turn-by-turn directions from the standard navigation system to metadata from the currently playing audio source. This screen can also display graphic representations of your long-term driving efficiency. Other vehicles have growing trees and blossoming flowers as metaphors to track efficient driving. The Focus Electric uses butterflies. So the more efficiently your drive, the more little blue butterflies fill the secondary display. If you just rolled your eyes at that, know that there are other types of displays just a few clicks of the steering wheel's twin directional pads away.

ford focus electric
The Focus Electric's primary message is an environmentally friendly one, but that doesn't mean that it can't accelerate when you need it to. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

If you've got a few miles to spare and can risk a bit of zesty driving, the Focus Electric will respond to pressure from your pedal foot with perfectly linear thrust from zero all the way up to its top speed of 84 mph (don't laugh) thanks to a perfectly flat torque curve that delivers a steady 236 pound-feet of twist and its single-speed gearbox that removes the jerky or slushy shifts. That top speed is pretty low as modern cars go, but the Focus Electric's strength lies not in high-speed Autobahn blasts, but in the sort of peppy low RPM urban driving that is so tricky for small displacement city cars because of their lack of torque. Need to get away from a traffic light fast enough to switch lanes for a turn at the next block? The Focus Electric will have you halfway down the block before most cars in its class have completed the 1-2 shift. The best part is that without all of the sound and fury of an ICE, your passenger won't even notice that you're living your life a quarter-mile at a time.

I wasn't able to put the Focus Electric through its handling paces, but then again it's highly unlikely that you will, either. The standard Focus was confident cornered and I'm fairly certain that the Focus Electric didn't lose much in translation. That said, the EV is more than 600 pounds heavier than it's ICE-powered sibling and uses low-resistance tires, so I can't imagine that there's much of an improvement. No, most prospective drivers are likely only interested in whether the Focus Electric is comfortable (it is) without feeling boatlike (it doesn't).

MyFord Touch
The MyFord Touch instrument cluster give drivers a customizable amount of visual feedback on their driving. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Even when you're just trying to get from point alpha to point bravo as efficiently as possible, the Focus Electric's cabin is a pleasant place to be. The quiet cabin allows the Sony premium audio system to do its job without having to battle induction and exhaust noise, so you can listen at lower volumes. Conversations with passengers can be had without shouting. At one point, I found myself stuck in a small traffic jam and was surprised to find that I wasn't as frustrated as I normal am in such a situation -- possibly because of the "green glow" that you get when start to believe that you're saving the environment by driving electric and that you're not wasting fuel (and money) by idling. I only got to make a short lap of downtown San Francisco, but I can imagine that spending a longer period of time with the Focus Electric could be as relaxing as a yoga session.

Regardless of whether you drive in a manner that's "zippy or zen," to use Ford's own terminology, you'll have to recharge the Focus Electric at some point. Ford claims that drivers will be able to recharge the vehicle's 23kWh, high-voltage, lithium ion battery in 3 to 4 hours on 240-volt power and that, with the help of utility rate-aware charging software developed by Microsoft, a full charge will cost about $2 to $3, or about 4 cents per mile. Additionally, the automaker's engineers expect that as charging points become more widespread (an estimated 12,000 charging stations are expected to be in place across the U.S. by the end of 2012), drivers will be able to leapfrog from charging point to charging point while running a day's errands to further extend the Focus Electric's range. So you'll be able to gain back the 20 miles of range that you lost driving to the mall by simply plugging in while you spend an hour inside shopping.

MyFord Mobile
The MyFord Mobile app puts efficiency data, charging controls, and other vehicle systems in the user's pocket. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Of course, there Focus also makes use of an onboard wireless modem to connect to the automaker's MyFord Mobile app and Web portal for even more granular analysis of your driving habits, charging patterns, and other vehicle systems.

As the 2012 Focus Electric slowly enters the U.S. market over the next few months, it will have to contend with Nissan's Leaf. Both vehicles feature estimated ranges that are so close that it's statistically insignificant, available power that's about on par (the Focus is more powerful at 141 horsepower, but the Leaf is 300 pounds lighter), and comparable cabin technology and telematics suites. To my finely tuned rear end, the Focus feels like a more refined ride, soaking up the bumps of the city with more grace. To my eye, the Focus Electric looks like a regular car where the Leaf looks like a space frog -- which of these is the superior aesthetic will depend on whether you want people to know you're a greenie from a mile away or not. Based only on my short ride in the Ford, my personal tastes have me leaning toward the Focus Electric in this most informal of shootouts. However, your tastes and the Focus Electric's higher pre-incentive $39,200 price tag ($1,950 to $4,000 more than the Leaf, depending on the trim level chosen) may have you leaning the other way.